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The First Numbers Stations

by Ryan S on November 30th, 2014


As mentioned in the article “World War I: 100 Years of Espionage” the first known instance of a numbers station was in WWI.  Issue 12 of the original ENIGMA newsletter wrote about the earliest known listener, Anton Habsburg.  He listened in on a few of the enemies stations and wrote down about 30 pages of material every day and would drop them off at the War Office.  This story was originally featured in the Austrian radio program “Kurzwellenpanorama” (Shortwave Panorama).  Also as mentioned in the article, the station(s) were likely in Morse code.

“Letters To ENIGMA” ENL #12

The following is the direct passage from ENIGMA Newsletter #12.

“Who was the first numbers station listener? Well Andreas in Germany may have tracked him down…

The following is taken from a feature “Kurzwellenpanorama” (Shortwave Panorama) about one of the most interesting Austrian radio pioneers, Anton Habsburg.  He was born in 1901 and as a little boy became interested in radio.  He had a room, built some equipment and learned Morse code.  Because of his position in the Austrian monarchy he had no judicial problems with his activites.

So he made some QSOs (radio contacts) with the Austrian millitay station in Vienna.  His first activites were during WWI, when he became involved in numbers transmissions.  He Regularly tuned to the coded messages from the enemy stations (around thirty pages of material each day).  These were FL- “Tour Eiffel” from Paris; ICI from Cotona, Italy; MSK from Moscow.  These stations echanged coded messages.  He always wrote down the numbers and on his way home from school called at the war office.

He handed over the messages to the radio operator there, saying “I can’t use it, not knowing the key, but if you can use it – if not throw it away.”  The department “Militarchifren” (“Military chiefs”) consisted of three groups: Russian codes (under Viktor von Marquesetti, Romainian codes (Captain Cornelious Sabu and Italian codes (Major Andreas Fidl). Fidl became chief cryptographer of the Republic of Austria after WWI, and after 1938 (When Austria became part of Hitler’s Third Reich) became advisor to the cryptology departments in fascist Germany.

The numbers were always checked and they were found to be correct, on one occasion the antennas on the receiving stations could not operate due to heavy frost (this occured at the VoA Greenville site last winter).  So they could not receive the messages.  But they had Hasburg’s copy of the message which they could use.

Was he the first numbers monitor?”

So this is the earliest known time a numbers station has been used and this means that numbers stations have been in use for about 100 years now.  The program described stopped running a very long time ago, and it is now impossible to find the original program that the newsletter mentions.


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